Best Zoos in the USA for Fun, Education and Animal Encounters

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best zoos in the usa woodland park zoo rhinos
Zoos are a great way for kids to learn about countries around the world, conservation, and endangered animals. Photo credit: Keri Baugh

The best zoos in the world include America’s first zoo, huge urban zoos, free zoos, even a magical Disney zoo. Here’s where you can feed a giraffe, see giant pandas, and spend the night with the animals. This list of don’t-miss zoos includes spots from San Diego to New York City, from Chicago to Miami.

Learn about Asian elephants, South African primates, Australian koalas, North American otters and conservation efforts to preserve endangered species and their habitats around the world.

So whether you plan a family vacation around one of the best zoos in the USA or add it to your next road trip, here are SheBuysTravel’s top picks for 25 must-see zoos.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Always check the zoo website before your visit. You may need to buy tickets or make reservations ahead of your visit. Requirements can change without notice. 

Giant panda at the San Diego Zoo, one of the best zoos for kids in the USA
My kids loved watching the giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo. Photo credit: Keri Baugh

1. San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Safari Park, San Diego, California

Without a doubt, San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Safari Park is one of the best zoos in California, or anywhere in the world, for that matter. My kids loved seeing the Giant Panda and gorilla exhibits, two highlights of the zoo.

It is vast, so seeing the San Diego Zoo in one day takes a bit of planning. But it is well worth it for all of the incredible animals and habitats on display.

The San Diego Wild Animal Safari Park is also well worth a visit. Families can tour the animals in what feels like the savanna to see animals in a setting similar to how you might see them in the wild. There are several safaris to choose from or you can tour via a ride aboard the Africa tram. Animal encounters include talks with tiger zookeepers, a lemur walk and more.

SheBuysTravel Tip: If you are a member of your local zoo, check to see whether you can get reciprocal free entry into the zoo you want to visit on vacation.

A polar bear at the Pittsburgh Zoo
A polar bear at the Pittsburgh Zoo. Photo credit: Christopher “Rice” from Westfield via Wikimedia Commons

2. Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

One of my family’s favorite zoos, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, this wonderful zoo is a great thing to do when visiting Pittsburgh with kids.

My kids’ favorites: the polar bears and the black rhino, which is an endangered species. Kids can enjoy wild encounters at this zoo with sharks, cheetahs and other animals.

Mei Xiang, one of the giant pandas at Smithsonian Woodley Park Zoo in Washington DC. Photo credit: Ron Cogswell via Wikimedia Commons

3. Smithsonian Woodley Park Zoo, Washington DC National Zoological Park, Washington, DC

This zoo used to be in my backyard, literally, when my husband and I lived in Washington, DC. One of the country’s best zoos and a national treasure, admission to the National Zoo is free if you walk in on a scheduled appointment.

In addition to its variety of animals,  the zoo is home to three beloved Giant Pandas, Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and her baby, Xiao Qi Ji. You will find a range of animals from all corners of the globe including the Americas, Asia, Africa, the Amazon and more.

SheBuysTravel Tip: If you drive in, admission is $30 for everyone in your car. But the zoo is located on Washington, DC’s terrific metro system, so take the train and get in free!

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Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is a favorite for kids with the chance to pet giraffes! Photo credit: Tami Mittan

4. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Colorado Springs, Colorado

This zoo is a favorite of writer Tami Mittan.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, CO, is our absolute favorite,” says Tami. “This unique zoo is situated on the side of a mountain, with wooded natural habitats along a path that winds its way up the hillside. But the real heart-warming show stealer is feeding the giraffes… and maybe even petting one!”

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Zoo Miami offers many animal encounters. Photo credit: Taty Pradilla

5. Zoo Miami, Miami, Florida

SheBuysTravel Taty Pradilla and her family loves Zoo Miami. According to Taty, “Zoo Miami is amazing for its fantastic exhibits and hands-on learning experiences.”

She adds, “It is a big hit with big and small kids, thanks to the very refreshing water spout playgrounds. And the icing on the cake is the above-ground people mover that is a blessing to ride back to the entrance on a hot humid Miami day.”

6. Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, Illinois

SheBuysTravel Editor-in-Chief Cindy Richards says her family’s favorite is Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.

One of the last free zoos in the country, Lincoln Park Zoo is located right on the Lake Michigan lakefront in the fun-to-explore Lincoln Park neighborhood, easily reached by public transportation and small enough cover in a couple of hours on a summer day, she says. “My kids grew up at the charming Children’s Zoo.”

Another great Midwest zoo is Cleveland’s Metroparks Zoo.

A tiger at Brookfield Zoo, one of the best zoos in the US
A tiger at Brookfield Zoo in suburban Chicago, another one of the best zoos in the USA. Photo credit: Tomcio77 via Wikimedia Commons

7. Brookfield Zoo, Brookfield, Illinois

Chicago is blessed with two of the best zoos in the USA. The other is Brookfield Zoo in the western suburbs.

From zebras and other hooved friends to giraffes and animals in the African savannah, gorillas, rhinos, big cats and more, Brookfield Zoo is a full-day attraction. The Hamill Family Play Zoo is the place to go to let little ones track animal prints, help build animal homes and learn about and touch some of the zoo’s animals.

Check the zoo website before you go to see what’s open and whether capacity limits are in effect.

People feeding a giraffe at the Brevard County Zoo, one of the best zoos to visit in the US
My kids loved feeding the giraffes at Brevard County Zoo in Florida. Photo credit: Keri Baugh

​8. Brevard County Zoo, Melbourne, Florida

Definitely, one to visit when you travel to Central Florida, the Brevard County Zoo is great for kids of all ages. Small enough to see a lot in a day, but full of fun activities including giraffe feeding that my kids adored, walking amongst kangaroos, some big cats and monkeys, this is a lovely zoo for kids.

There is even a toddler play area, splash park and train that goes around the park. One of my kids’ other favorite animals was the sloth.

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Kids enjoying the elephants at the free St. Louis Zoo. Photo credit: Melody Pittman

9. St. Louis Zoo, St. Louis, Missouri

SheBuysTravel Judy Antell loves the St. Louis Zoo and recommends it as one of the best things to do with kids when visiting St. Louis with kids.

Judy says, “The St Louis Zoo is one of the best zoos in the United States and admission is always free. I used to run track in college, and my long runs would involve a visit to the polar bears. Those polar bears now enjoy fancy digs with a glass viewing wall of the pool where the bears frolic.”

Judy also notes that during the first hour of operation, the Children’s Zoo and carousel are free. “You can always see the grizzly bears, penguins, apes and big cats,” says Judy.

Make it a zoo two-fer in Missouri and visit the Kansas City Zoo too!

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You can take a safari ride at Animal Kingdom Park at Disney World. Photo credit: Keri Baugh

10. Animal Kingdom Park, Orlando, Florida

If you are visiting Disney theme parks or Central Florida, Animal Kingdom is both an amusement park and a zoo.

In addition to a wild animal safari where you can often spot zebras, giraffes, elephants, rhinos, African lions and more, you can also walk through the African and Asian areas to see other animal species. From hippos to gorillas, alligators and crocodiles, this is a great place to learn about animals, including endangered species like the Komodo dragon.

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Woodland Park Zoo has great animals, a carousel, and a great indoor kids play and learning area. Photo credit: Keri Baugh

11. Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, Washington

The Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington is another of the best zoos in the USA to visit with kids. When we lived in Seattle, I took my toddler here often.

Not only is it one of the top zoos in the country, but it is also easy to walk around, with a great selection of animals. From giraffes you can feed, to elephants, meerkats, penguins and everything in between, this is a wonderful zoo for kids.

Need more zoo fun during your trip to the Pacific Northwest? Head to Tacoma and check out the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium.

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My kids love the indoor play and education area at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Photo credit: Keri Baugh

There is also a wonderful carousel to ride and an excellent kids’ climbing and educational play area. It is definitely one to visit when visiting Seattle.

A giraffe at the Cincinnati Zoo gets up close and personal during a behind-the-scenes feeding opportunity during an overnight at the zoo.
Get up (super) close and personal with the Cincinnati Zoo’s giraffe families, during the Twiga Family Overnight. Photo credit: Jennifer Kaufman

12. Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, Cincinnati, Ohio

SheBuysTravel Jennifer Kaufman loves the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden and notes it is one of the very best zoos in the USA for families. Jennifer says the zoo has an exceptional education program that has been a very helpful part of her homeschooling curricula. “I remember my first overnight at the zoo when I was a child. I have loved the ‘behind the scenes’ kind of offerings ever since,” says Jennifer.

She adds, “certainly some of the multi-week classes and events are geared toward locals, but there are a number of incredible, unique opportunities at the Cincinnati Zoo that visitors love, too.”  One of Jennifer’s favorite parts is the overnight programs, where you can spend a night with giraffes at the zoo.

Read More: The Ohio Zoos Children Love!

13. Omaha Zoo Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium

Located in Nebraska, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium is consistently rated one of the best zoos in the world. With a wide range of animals and ways to see them, it is a great zoo to visit with kids.

With animals from around the world including Sea Lions, Red Panda, Amur Tiger, Sloth Bear, Snow Leopards and the Orangutan Forrest, to name a few, this zoo is at the top of our bucket list!

14. Bronx Zoo, New York City

Listed as one of the best zoos in the world, and a flagship zoo of the Wildlife Conservation Society, this is definitely a bucket list zoo. With more than 6,000 animals and 265 acres, the Bronx Zoo is home to the first zoo animal hospital!

15. Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Columbus, Ohio

Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is home to more than 10,000 animals from six distinct world regions including Africa, Asia, Australia, North America and the shores. It is a great place to learn about conservation, the world’s animals and endangered species.

16. Philadelphia Zoo, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

This zoo is on our bucket list because of its great exhibits where kids can get up close to some of their favorite animals and learn about the world’s most endangered species. From the white ruffed lemur to the Amur tiger, the Sumatran orangutan and many others, it is a wonderful place for kids to learn about conservation and see these special animals.

17. Denver Zoo, Denver, Colorado

On our bucket list and in a gorgeous setting of Denver, Colorado is the Denver Zoo. This 125-year-old zoo has an award-winning education and outreach program! It is a great place to visit with kids to learn about animals, habitats and wonders of the world.

18. Fort Worth Zoo, Fort Worth, Texas

This zoo is high on our bucket list for its amazing animal collection. We are particularly interested in its new elephant springs. This enhancement allows visitors to get a closer look at these beautiful creatures including a three-generation elephant family and a greater one-horned rhino.

This zoo also has numerous programs for kids, including overnight programs and summer camps for budding zookeepers!

Read More: The Top Zoos in Texas for B-I-G Fun!

19. Houston Zoo, Houston, Texas

Another zoo on our bucket list to visit is the Houston Zoo, the second most visited zoo in the US. This zoo is home to more than 6,000 residents. And, thanks to visitors, it supports 49 wildlife conservation projects in 27 countries around the world.

In addition to its collection of animals, kids will love the giraffe feeding, the children’s zoo with petting animals and the water park play area to cool off in the Texas heat.

20. Oakland Zoo, Oakland, California

The Oakland Zoo has been recognized for outstanding animal care. It is also home to the California Trail, which teaches kids all about native animals of the region from the past and present. See animals from around the world and native to Northern California.

21. The Living Desert Zoo in Palm Springs, California

If you are visiting Palm Springs, California, the Living Desert Zoo is worth visiting thanks to a variety of animal encounters where kids can get up close and personal with a variety of animals. From giraffe feeding to walking next to jumping kangaroos, behind-the-scenes tours and petting experiences, this zoo is one of the best zoos to visit with kids in the USA.

22. Audubon Zoo, New Orleans, Louisiana

One of our other bucket list zoos is the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, Louisiana. While kids will love seeing the variety of animals, they will especially love “Cool Zoo,” the water park area complete with a lazy river, water slide and splash areas right next to the animals inside the zoo!

23. Alaska Zoo, Anchorage, Alaska

While a family trip to Alaska will be a wildlife safari in its own right, the Alaska Zoo is on our bucket list because of its incredible programs and animal encounters. It is a great way to get up close and personal with some native creatures. Kids will get the chance to meet a moose, get up close to brown bears and go on a walking tour with a zookeeper and his goat companion to discover animal reactions and learn about the zoo’s residents.

24. Bear Country USA, Rapid City, South Dakota

Bear Country USA is a drive-through safari park experience located on the road to Mount Rushmore. It is a great way to spot black bears, elk, mountain lions, buffalo, reindeer and more in their natural habitat.

25. Memphis Zoo, Memphis, Tennessee

A trip to the Memphis Zoo offers a look at animals from all corners of the planet. Kids will love their comprehensive range of animals, like polar bears, kangaroos, giant pandas, grizzly bears, timber wolves and more.

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Some zoos offer a safari experience to observe animals in their natural habitat. Photo credit: Keri Baugh

Tips for Saving Money at Zoos

Membership is the key to saving money at zoos! If you are a member at your local zoo, check to see whether it is a part of the reciprocal admission program through the Association of Zoos and Museums. If so, bring along your membership card; it could give you free admission to the zoo you’ll visit on your family vacation as well.

Also, if you’re traveling with a large group, check the membership price for the zoo you’ll visit. For example, single day 2022 admission to Brookfield Zoo in suburban Chicago costs $24.95 for adults, $19.95 for seniors (65+) and $17.95 for kids ages 3-11. Parking adds another $15. Admission to the Hamill Play Zoo is extra.

A one-year-membership for two adults, all of their children or grandchildren, and seven additional admissions, along with parking and free admission to the children’s zoo costs $158. If you’re visiting on a big extended family vacation, the grandparents, could buy the membership and save big on the cost of admission for the grandparents, their adult children and the grandkids.

Keri first tasted travel on a college choir tour to Europe and was immediately hooked. She lived abroad twice, traveled to over 30 countries, and was a professional Cast Member at Walt Disney World Resort and for an educational travel company, before having kids. Once they came, she wanted to keep traveling and has done so since her oldest was three months old. Keri loves traveling with kids because you have to slow down, take breaks, and sometimes live like a local. It teaches kids flexibility, patience, and risk-taking, and it opens their eyes to the world. Keri moved abroad a third time to London for a year, when her kids were ages 4, 1 and 1. Her family travels several times per year, to Europe, the Caribbean, Hawaii, Disney and Orlando, and on ski vacations in New England and out west. They take regular weekend getaways all over New England, where she is based. Keri is a stay-at-home mom and owns the family travel blog Bon Voyage with Kids to inspire families to enjoy the journey of traveling with kids. Keri has been a planDisney Panelist 2023 for Disney Vacation Club and Walt Disney World and as a family travel expert, she is regularly interviewed in major domestic and international news media and travel publications.
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